My German friend, Fine, lives by the seed of her trousers more than anyone I’ve ever met. Spontaneity is her middle name. I once went hitchhiking with her around the dry arid plains of inland Portugal, waiting hours in the oppressive August heat for a ride. But even in the heat, she was calm and collected with her thumb out waving and smiling at every passing car. “It just takes one person to stop!”
We had written a thesis together from Berlin, spending more time at the clubs than on our computers. We didn’t do well on the thesis, obviously, but we had a great time attempting to write it. She had spent the past two years of COVID in Costa Rica and Mexico, traveling around and learning new skills for living a more sustainable life. A lover of cheese making and ferments, her journey had led her to far corners of Mexico to dig into the remote cultures of those living in the hinterlands.
She had told me she expected to be around Guadalajara by the time we arrived in Mexico, and me and my mother being the prompt travel planners that we are jumped on the opportunity to buy a plane ticket and Airbnb in Guadalajara. By the time we arrived, Fine’s plans had changed and she found herself down at a meditation center in the pine-crested mountains South of Mexico City, heading north to Querétaro afterward. So we had several days in Guadalajara planned, an Airbnb booked, with no real reason to be there other than to experience one of the largest cities in Mexico.
Guadalajara, much like Mexico City, is unendingly expansive. The sprawl of the city is nothing but mind-boggling, leaving visitors reeling from the pure scale of this city. But the city feels decidedly more Mexican, in a way. Smaller buildings, bleached by the invasive high-altitude sun. Guadalajara, and Jalisco at large, are also home to Tequila and Mariachi music. The city is worth visiting for these cultural points alone.
Aside from tequila and wandering around the city, I did not connect with Guadalajara. Maybe it was my continual case of the squitters which made life a constant run to the bathroom (Pro travel tip: it finally ended after chugging a bottle of Pepto Bismol), but Guadalajara seemed to be a bit hostile. I know a lot of people love it, which is great for them, but I did not find much to ground me in the city.
As we walked the city, we received side glances from locals in a stand-offish way. On one wander, we ended up in a part of town with a large population of aged prostitutes. This was only at 11 AM, but they were out selling their wares, eyeing me and my mother’s boyfriend and whispering, “Oh, looks like they already have one.”
I did, however, find my first Mexican city love in the form of Querétaro, or as my mom’s boyfriend calls it “Queer-tarrow”, where we finally met Fine. The city is wonderfully designed, with a pedestrian center and gorgeous architecture. The city feels alive at all times of day, bubbling with locals walking and selling goods during the day and public dance events in the parks at night. As a University town, Querétaro has its host of hip bars and shops to keep the students well imbibed for their studies.
I always love a good University town. Mons, Aalborg, Boulder, all of these cities have the gift of young talented minds bringing new ideas and skills that make the town a more connected and interesting place. A University serves as a place of community for the people living within it, something to be proud of. In Monterrey, their University is their identity. The city is so well known for its University in Mexico that it seems to be their calling card, the rallying call to be proud of just as much as being Mexica or your mom’s pozole.
When I went to Hong Kong to study abroad in 2018, Fine went to Querétaro. Here, she met Mario, a kindhearted guy from a town nearby, who offered to go out with us. This also gave my mother an excellent opportunity to sit down with a Mexican who spoke English to tear down some perceptions she had about the country and people. The main question on her mind was, “why do people feel the need to move North, and why are people in Mexico so different from those that come North?”
The answer turns out to be a bit more complicated than expected. While traveling, I was reading my favorite travel author, Paul Theroux’s new book On the Plain of Snakes. He too wanted to get to the bottom of this issue and spent countless hours driving across the US-Mexico border before heading to the Southern states of Oaxaca and Chiapas, the two states with the highest population of immigrants to the US. For him, he discovered that wages are so low, and stories of how things were in the past are so embellished, that many from poor villages in the South see going to the US as the only viable option.
Back in the day, you could cross the border with your driver’s license and come back for dinner with a pocket of hard-earned American dollars. Elderly locals come back with these stories and inspire the youth of the villages, often looking down the proverbial barrel of a life of hard menial labor with little pay. Or, in many other cases, down the all-to-real barrel of mafia-related violence and insecurity. These stories get embellished and romanticized, leading to people going North in search of a better way to feed their families. What they find is a border crossing costing thousands of dollars (usually equivalent to a few years or decades of work), and fraught with the dangers of crossing with narcos and human traffickers. Yet despite the risks, some still decide that crossing the border is the only way to go forward in their lives, and find that the journey could be worth it in the long run.
Mario seemed to agree with this explanation for the most part, and I would do my own research on this a bit further when I eventually went to Oaxaca and Chiapas myself. As for the question regarding why the difference between those who come and those who stay, I suppose this is the same as for any country, really. The Americans that come from Florida State University to Cancun to drink and party during spring break are different from your Jill Deer living in Minnesota running a bait and tackle shop next to a lake.
Later, we met with some of Mario’s friends to go to a Oaxaca-style restaurant to eat a tlayuda (a bit like an open-faced quesadilla) with grasshoppers and ants, and drink the Oaxacan specialty firewater of mezcal. For me, this proved an excellent opportunity to sit down and speak Spanish with some locals and dig into the daily nitty-gritty of life in Mexico.
For Mario, coming from a town that has just recently become quite dangerous to live in, he has to decide on a regular basis “would I like to go out for a beer, or risk being shot tonight?” This was a sobering thing to hear, and for me put into perspective the stress that comes from having to think about this on a daily basis. Yet still, I probably wouldn’t want to walk around certain parts of Denver at night, so I suppose we have similar problems back home.
That Sunday, we woke to the sound of drumming in the distance. I thought it must just be some basic street performer act. When we went to investigate, we found the main square outside of a major cathedral filled with Aztec dancers, wearing homemade dresses made of beautiful fabrics, jaguar pelts, and headdresses lined with the plumage of tropical birds. They were dancing, performing ritual dances to the Saint of the church, an interesting display of the past and the present, Christian and “pagan”, mixed together in a uniquely Mexican way. There were hundreds of dancers, coming from as far afield as New Mexico to dance in this square and literally strut their tail feathers.
That evening, Fine and I went to one of her old haunts to try something I have been burning to get my hands on: pulque. A thick white fermented drink made from the sap of the maguey (a kind of agave), Pulque is a drink sipped with friends over hours and apparently can wreak havoc on your stomach if you drink too much. A bit like kombucha, but usually with around 11% alcohol, pulque has an extremely filling effect to it. It also looks and has the same consistency as drinking a pint of semen, which strangely doesn’t perturb me one bit. There’s still something oddly satisfying about it…I can’t quite put my finger on it.
The plan before coming to Mexico was to travel together for a week or so, and Fine and I would split and go separate ways from my Mother and her boyfriend. Instead, we decided to rent a car and head South towards the coast of Jalisco, stopping in the Monarch butterfly reserve and Colima state along the way. The next two weeks would be filled with beautiful drives, putting us in the occasionally sketchy situation of driving next to armed cartel guards through rural roads. This would be the beginning of our grand Western Mexico road trip.